It’s somewhat rare for a series to be simply described as a solid throwback to the dubious “glory days” of the OVA boom, because that’s a big kind of claim with a lot to unpack inherent to it. Something trying to evoke a high-quality, highly-acclaimed production like Patlabor (1988), Aim for the Top! Gunbuster (1988) or Bubblegum Crisis (1987-91) is going to be doing something very different to something steeped in nostalgia for MD Geist (1986) or Angel Cop (1989-94). Arguably a lot of subsequent anime has respect and nostalgia for the very best of the boom era, and not so much has kept the same reverence for its trashier, more exploitative side.
At which point it’s worth talking about someone who, if you’ve any love for the really trashy, violent and exploitative side of anime, you’ve probably heard of or run into. Or, actually, if you’ve been watching Healin Good*Precure because he worked on an episode of it. Koichi Ohata has an eclectic filmography, with extensive mechanical design credits (Choriki Robo Galatt, Cho Kosoku Galvion, Gunbuster, Char’s Counterattack, Video Senshi Laserion, Macross Frontier: Sayonara no Tsubasa and Kosoku Denjin Albegas among others) and extensive directorial credits (most notably including MD Geist, Galvion, Cybernetics Guardian, Genocyber and Ikki Tousen). A quick look down the list is an A+ intro to people getting exploded interestingly, giant robots, women not wearing many clothes and all the sorts of things that got licensed very cheaply with lots of swears. So if anyone can make a TV anime in 2004 that evokes very well the body-horror-cyberpunk-mecha-ultraviolence of the sci-fi OVA it’s probably the person who worked on a lot of them.
Enter Burst Angel. The setup could not be more 1980s/early 1990s OVA, albeit with a slight bit of genre evolution. A group of underdressed and over-equipped women have a giant robot, cool mecha base and fight cyborgs, giant robots, corporate goons, mutants and occasionally just street thugs in a post-crisis, lawless Tokyo. Just now there’s the ordinary boy character there who (in a probably unintentional parallel to Martian Successor Nadesico) is their cook, and the giant robots are CGI. Make no mistake though, the trashiness you’d expect is there in full force. Breasts heave, people explode, there is a steady death toll of guys in hazmat suits, cops and random bystanders as leering skeleton-faced mutants rip and tear through the slums of Tokyo and quite frankly I’m loving every minute. It has a charming Wild West aesthetic running through it, with cowboy hats, gunslingers and Spaghetti Western musical cues – it’s not impossible, when you watch it and see the characters preoccupied with Japan losing its identity in this post-apocalyptic cyber-future to think that these cultural juxtapositions have some thematic intent.
I think it’s because this isn’t a self-conscious, ironic attempt to be “nostalgic” for old anime; it doesn’t attempt to emulate old art styles, it doesn’t end up arch and insincerely cheesy in trying to capture the old charm points of these OVAs, it is simply someone who’s been working on such things for years doing the same thing again but with the technology and style of the era. And I quite appreciate that. There’s a bit of a sense that liking trashy media – and I know that’s a dismissive term in itself – has to be done “despite itself”, with a sense of detachment. A level beyond acknowledging something has numerous flaws and liking it despite that. And that reflects in how things are homaged, I find – there’s a bit of insincerity or almost parody a lot of the time. (There are of course always exceptions – Redline is a pure evolution of the all-action high-quality high-concept anime SF film, but Redline is a very singular production).
It might seem like there’s not a lot to say about a show like Burst Angel, it’s just tits and violence. Pure mindless entertainment and all that. That’s not quite true – it’s drawing on similar cyberpunk or techno-horror themes to older series that did try to say something and even if its touch is feather-light in this case, those themes are interesting. Cyberpunk has a troubled history in questioning the role of technology in dehumanising people – it comes from an era where there was a much deeper skepticism about body enhancement and modification and relies a bit too heavily at times of the Ship of Theseus/Trigger’s Broom principle that eventually you lose yourself if you replace your bits with those that suit your needs better. This is where, strangely, cyber-horror takes a more adept approach. The focus tends to be as much on the horror, the dehumanisation, coming from a position of elites or unaccountable forces violating the body against its will; the issue is not with wanting to give oneself the body one feels most comfortable in, but with using the vulnerable, the exploited, the innocent as testbeds for vile, amoral science and militarism. Laser-focusing on the risks of the unaccountable deciding that the vulnerable should be the guinea pigs for their research provides a natural horror dynamic and also squarely places criticism on the perceived invincibility from consequence of the tech world. And that’s a theme that can 100% be explored in a film or show where people get eviscerated by the products of unaccountable science and unwilling experimentation. (It’s also worth watching, if you want some more of that, the recent streaming original series Kamen Rider Amazons, because that has some top limb consuming, giant bug dismembering and head exploding action – and that’s just the good guys.)
It’s not worth trying to say if Burst Angel is good or not because it’s something made as a continuation of a type of anime that has a dedicated fanbase that enjoy it regardless of, or sometimes because of, the things that make it unconscionable for other viewers. But if you want to see what happens when someone with a good history of making lovably dubious anime is given the chance to do it again in 2004, watch it.